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Grueling Ironman competition is the culmination of a dream for Stephen Manley

Tuesday, October 08, 2002

By Christopher Snowbeck, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Stephen Manley competes this month in the world championship of the Ironman Triathlon, it will almost be as if he's not a diabetic anymore.

Stephen Manley pedals along Old Oakdale Road in South Fayette during a training ride for his first Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii later this month. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)
Type I diabetics such as Manley lack insulin, the hormone that transforms blood sugar into fuel for cells. They must be careful to limit both their sugar intake and receive plenty of insulin.

Yet when Manley competes, his body will behave in a manner that would be unthinkable for other diabetics: He will consume loads of sugar and use only one-tenth of the insulin he normally needs. That's because his muscles are so well conditioned that while exercising they can use sugar without insulin.

"That's the benefit of exercise: He uses alternate pathways besides insulin," said Dr. Wayne Evron, associate medical director of the Joslin Diabetes Center at The Western Pennsylvania Hospital.

Manley, of course, will always be a diabetic, but his Ironman experience shows having diabetes isn't a barrier to extreme athleticism.

He'll be running a full marathon -- 26.2 miles -- cycling 112 miles against 60 mph winds and swimming 2.4 miles through the ocean's choppy waters. All in one day.

The last time he did a similar event in Florida, it took him 13 hours, 51 minutes and 47 seconds. But the championship held in Hawaii is considered the Big Kahuna.

"When people hear the word Ironman, they think you're nuts," said Manley, 29, of South Fayette. "But to me, it's a lifelong goal and I'm getting to live it."

As a teen-ager growing up in Houston, Manley first saw an Ironman event on television and was struck by the sights of seemingly average people doing extraordinary things. He thought: Why not me?

"A lot of people are into football, baseball, basketball, but I wanted to do something different," he said.

Manley was already a runner, swimmer and cyclist, but he hadn't before put the skills together in competition. So, he started participating in combination events that featured, for example, 30-mile bike rides sandwiched between 6-mile runs.

In time, Manley began climbing the triathlon ladder. He started with smaller triathlons featuring 50-yard swims, 10- to 15-mile bike rides and 3-mile runs and worked his way up.

During 1996, his senior year at West Texas A&M University, Manley began having trouble with blurred vision and frequent urination, and was subsequently diagnosed with diabetes.

Manley's father is a diabetic who has had trouble with congestive heart failure, and diabetes regularly put one of his cousins into a hospital. But Stephen Manley never thought the disease would affect him.

To maintain the Ironman dream despite the illness, Manley got advice from several doctors and nutritionists and also joined the Diabetes Exercise and Sports Association, a national group of diabetic athletes.

"I decided I wasn't going to let my life revolve around it -- it was going to revolve around my life," Manley said.

Increasingly, top athletes hold that sort of attitude.

Gary Hall Jr. won a gold medal in swimming during the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney despite his diabetes.

The pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly is sponsoring the Olympic quest of diabetic cross-country skier Kris Freeman as part of the company's effort to showcase people doing great things despite diabetes, said spokeswoman Nicole Hebert.

And Lilly is one of three companies sponsoring Manley's Ironman quest, which culminates with the Hawaiian championship Oct. 19.

Every year about 150 of the 1,500 competitors win spots in the world championship through a lottery. Manley had applied nine times before finally being selected this past winter. To solidify his spot, he competed in a half-Ironman competition this past summer and attended a special training camp.

P.J. Brovak, spokesman for the Ironman competition, said Manley isn't the first diabetic to participate in Hawaii, but he estimated the total is less than 20.

Along the race route, Manley will have special bags stashed that include blood monitors and food. Those are some of the accommodations diabetic athletes must make to compete, said Evron, the diabetes specialist.

"They've got to maintain a balance between production of sugar and utilization," he said.

Manley also will wear an insulin pump, which makes it easier to control his insulin level.

When he and his wife, Jennifer, fly to Hawaii at the end of this week, they will encounter not only a tropical island but also a course that is uniquely challenging because of its high wind, temperatures and humidity.

He feels the major obstacle is the course, not diabetes.

"There's a lot of people who will say 'You can't do this,' or 'You can't do that.' There are always skeptics, but I'm one to prove them wrong."

Christopher Snowbeck can be reached at csnowbeck@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.

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